The re-authorization of the "Violence Against Women Act" has stalled in Washington. Offering protection to undocumented immigrants who are victims of domestic violence is one of the sticking points. The house version of the bill strips those protections away.
In addition, domestic violence service agencies have lost funding in recent years -- and are struggling to help immigrant victims -- who they say are especially vulnerable.
Family ties, loyalties, conflicting emotions, economics, fear -- many ingredients make domestic violence an especially complicated and toxic issue. Immigration can become a lens that magnifies all of these problems, says Brenda Gorski, a lawyer at the Nationalities Service Center in Philadelphia. Gorski says abusers use a victims immigration status as a weapon.
"If you call the police I am not going to file papers for you," explained Gorski. "They can withdraw that application at any time, so there are always threats to call immigration and have the partner or spouse removed from the U.S."
Gorski says many of her clients are married or engaged to men who are legal residents in this country, and are dependent on them to gain lawful status in the US.
Immigration status was a major concern for Edwidge, a woman in her thirties who came to Philadelphia from Cameroon in 2005. She was pregnant when her boyfriend, a legal U.S. resident, became abusive, but she didn't report the attacks.
"I was really scared," recalled Edwidge. "I was thinking I am going to go there, and will I be the one to be arrested, they might arrest me and ship me back home."
Her visa had expired, and she was hoping to gain legal status through a marriage to her child's father.
The abuse continued, and Edwidge finally sought help when her daughter was an infant. A domestic violence service agency connected her to Brenda Gorski.
She filed a restraining order against the abuser, but he still sought Edwidge out at a hair salon. "He came there twice, and broke stuff and assaulted me," she remembered. "He called me on the phone, threatened me, 'I am going to kill you, this is my country, I am an American, I am going to show you' ".
Brenda Gorski says in addition to immigration problems, other issues hold victims back from reporting domestic violence.
"Many of them are completely isolated, they don't have family support, there are also cultural issues, many of them don't want to report crimes, for example in the past I had a woman from Pakistan who was raped, but she was reluctant to go to the police because she didn't want her family to find out about it," said Gorski.
Immigrant women leaving abusive partners often also leave behind their tight-knit communities says Heather Larocca of Philadelphia's Women Against Abuse:
"They get into a situation where they really have to choose their culture over safety, they are usually very connected to their community, and then, healing from domestic violence and the trauma you have been through, it's a huge challenge when you don't have that connection and that community," said Larocca.
Petitions for special visas and protections can take months says Brenda Gorski, and as women wait, their lives are in limbo. They can't work, don't have a way to support themselves some are stuck in shelters for months.
"I have seen in the past some clients going back to their abusers, because it was so difficult to manage on their own, to find a place to live, to provide for themselves," she said.
Gorski says federal funding cuts for immigrant legal services have drastically reduced how many people she can help. Some cases are taken on pro-bono by law firms, but Gorski fears the shortage of free legal services will slow an already drawn out process.
In Edwige's case Gorski was able to secure a so-called U-visa, which protects illegal immigrant crime victims. After long stays at several shelters, Edwidge and her daughter now live in a small apartment. Her daughter is a citizen because she was born in the US, and Edwidge is hopeful about her daughter's future.
"To acquire a good education, and just to be a very productive citizen in America, that's my hope for her, she is going to do good in school and do good in life," she said.
Edwidge has found a job in the healthcare field, and is currently applying for permanent resident status.